"The public outside is not concerned about this stuff," he said.
Since the budget crunch, Baca has invested his political capital mostly toward one goal: persuading county leaders and voters to funnel more tax dollars into his department.
He campaigned hard in 2004 for Measure A, which would have raised the sales tax a half-cent to fund law enforcement. It fell short, but the sheriff has not given up. He is working to get a quarter-cent sales tax increase and a $500-million bond measure for jail improvements on future ballots.
Yet even as he seeks more money, he has found resources to hire a contingent of civilian advisors with roles that defy easy definition.
Baca employs three field deputies, each paid more than $88,000 a year, who perform such tasks as writing promotional articles to tout sheriff's programs, organizing prayer breakfasts and helping issue credentials to visiting foreign dignitaries.
One, Jeffrey Prang, is a councilman in West Hollywood, where the sheriff holds a contract to provide police services. Another, Bishop Edward Turner, is a well-known pastor with the Power of Love Christian Fellowship in South Los Angeles. The third, Tevan Aroustamian, is an Iranian emigre well-connected in the county's Middle Eastern community. Baca, referring to the trio as a "potpourri," said their primary value was in bridging the gap between the department and communities reluctant to trust police.
"One's a gay guy. One's a black minister," Baca said, referring to Prang and Turner, respectively. "It speaks to the people of this county."
Last year, Baca hired a close friend, Michael Yamaki, to be his special advisor. A former criminal defense attorney who served as former Gov. Gray Davis' appointments secretary, Yamaki has known Baca for 15 years and lent him $20,000 during his 1998 campaign.
His role at the Sheriff's Department is still evolving. Yamaki said he had negotiated a deal for local businesses to allow sheriff's vehicles to use their parking lots in emergencies and advised Baca and his staff on matters such as state legislation and how to handle area judges.
Baca said Yamaki's connections and savvy would help the department bring in additional county and state money, far outweighing his $105,000 salary.
"He's a very political guy," said the sheriff. He dismissed concerns that Yamaki and the other aides were a luxury.
Earlier this year, Yamaki accompanied the sheriff on his trip to London, traveling at county expense. After returning, he submitted an expense claim asking the county to reimburse him $136 for four dinners, even though he had not paid for any of them. The London police paid for one. A Times reporter paid for another.
Yamaki said the clerical staffers who prepared his expense report mistakenly thought county employees traveling on business were entitled to a per diem. In fact, county policy allows employees to be reimbursed up to $10.50 for breakfast, $13.50 for lunch and $34 for dinner, but only for meals they actually pay for, Auditor-Controller J. Tyler McCauley said.
"That would mean I'm in trouble," Yamaki said.
His gaffe revealed a long-standing practice by sheriff's employees. Between 1999 and 2005, seven other department executives — Baca included — requested reimbursement of $11,800 for 675 meals. In nearly every case, they requested the maximum amount, sometimes expensing meals while attending conferences that included them. They are not required to submit receipts.
Yamaki said he intends to return his meal money. Baca said the county meals policy was vague.
"That seems petty to me," he said of questions concerning the expense claims.
No Looking Back
With Latino and black inmates squaring off for a seventh day of rioting in the Los Angeles County jails earlier this year, Baca announced he would bring in Cardinal Roger Mahony and other religious leaders, hoping they could appeal to inmates' "common good as human beings."
Much like his Compton intervention, however, the step proved ineffective. When the melee stretched across two weeks, county officials and prison advocates alike were reminded that the jails remain much as they were when Baca first became sheriff.
Baca maintains he is making incremental progress. With the county's financial picture improving, the sheriff received a $150-million budget increase in the current fiscal year and is expected to get a $128-million boost next year. After stumbling at first, the agency's recruitment push has finally reached full speed. Baca said the agency would add 100 deputies every five weeks until the end of the year.
Asked what he would change about his time in office, Baca responded that he was "not a retroactive thinker" and that he was confident that the public trusts him, even if it does not always agree with him.
He shrugged off the skepticism he has faced inside the department as an inevitable side effect of change.
"I work the folks in this organization really hard. That's what leadership is about. And there will be times they'll like me more than at other times, I'm sure," he said. "The key is that I stay abreast of my effectiveness by saying to every member of the Sheriff's Department that you work extremely hard and I love that fact. And you do it from your heart.
"But you won't work harder than me. You need vacations. I don't. You need days off. I don't. You need to rest. I don't. I'm 64. I'll run faster than you."
Staff researcher Maloy Moore contributed to this report.